Chronic Pain: The Ultimate Motivator for Bad and Good Changes

Physical pain is a universal experience, in as much that everyone who lives will experience at least some level of physical pain semi-frequently. Most of it is very minor and sometimes even ignorable. Random aches, cramps, stings, and spasms happen daily and are so small they don’t even register at the level of mental awareness. Even the ones that do reach a level of awareness are so minor that they wouldn’t be worthy of mention in a daily journal that one might keep. Severe pain is luckily infrequent and rare, perhaps happening to some people less than a handful of times in their life. This type of pain is extremely unpleasant but rarely leads to any long-term mental impact that negatively impacts one’s life on a major scale. I can even speak to this, as having had a kidney stone years ago I remember the agony but have no lasting emotional or intellectual thoughts about it except, “that sucked, I hope I don’t feel that again”. There is another kind of physical pain, however, that causes a great deal of mental impact, chronic pain. Chronic pain is not necessarily severe but can be. It can be moderate or mild but even in mild cases has a psychological component that transient pain does not.

When I refer to chronic pain, I use some criteria that are not necessarily medical but based on what I have seen when I see pain in a form that is a huge mental challenge as well as a major motivator for change. These criteria are

  • The pain is very frequent, nearly daily or daily, although does not need to be 100% constant.
  • The pain may fluctuate in terms of severity, but it does not get eliminated or majorly reduced by over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen.
  • The pain is caused by a condition or injury that is likely not to fully heal in a timeframe of days to weeks. A broken arm hurts quite a bit for a while, but it will heal in less than a few months.
  • The pain is unavoidable in that everyday life is a trigger, not specific and rare triggers that can be avoided.

Pain as a Motivator

Motivation for change usually comes from some form of discomfort. It can be a more metaphorical discomfort, like knowing your life could be better in a certain way that is within your grasp. It can also very often be physical discomfort. Humans have developed remarkable resilience to put up with a lot of discomfort to avoid the unknown that comes with change, but as the discomfort grows it typically wins the battle and forces change. Chronic physical pain is a prime example of discomfort motivating change. This is not to say one should look for chronic pain as their primary motivator. It is however one of the most frequent experiences that gets people to make changes. The problem is that chronic pain seems to encourage good and bad changes equally. To put it another way, a person in chronic pain struggles to differentiate between good and bad changes due to the pain relief becoming the overwhelming goal.

Take the example of a person with chronic pain who has been motivated to seek treatment. The pain is there encouraging this possible positive change but also reducing the person’s mental bandwidth, so to speak, to make a fully informed decision on their treatment. While I have zero experience or expertise in managing chronic pain from a medical standpoint, it is often baffling to hear that a clients first attempt to manage their pain medically was done in a haphazard, short-term focused, and even at times financially reckless way. Assuming that medical providers give good advice, which they mostly do, how do so many people with pain issues seem to stumble so much when trying to make positive changes for themselves. I believe the reason truly lies within the fact that we are limited resources as individuals.

Pain Reduces Mental Resources

Think of the last time you were in moderate or even severe pain. If I had demanded you to answer a basic math question at that moment, you would likely be unable to process the answer nearly as quickly as usual or perhaps not at all. In all likelihood, you would ignore the question totally as it is not imperative to dealing with the current pain. This is a simple example of why people in chronic pain are motivated for change but often not towards positive change at first. Their mental resources are being divided between simply managing the pain and doing all the other things that life requires. I often tell clients in session I have a mental image of people’s mental capacity as a barrel of water. The barrel is usually at least 50% full all the time, because the world demands a lot of us. But, we still have that other 50% empty space that is a reserve for when we need to be focused or more proactive. If something comes up that dumps another 25% into our barrel, we are less equipped to handle more things. If the barrel reaches capacity and overflows, things will be set aside by default like our self-care and maybe even some priorities to others.

With chronic pain, the barrel is constantly more filled than in a person without pain. I wouldn’t put an exact percentage on it as chronic pain does vary and also can get adjusted to be the mind, but if one person is in pain and another isn’t you can guarantee the person in pain has less room in their barrel. Because they are working with less mental resources, they are often easily persuaded by simple solutions to their pain that may have longer term consequences or may not even be the most effective. The lack of space in their mental barrel makes it harder for them to dedicate the mental energy it takes to make sound and sustainable decisions.

Check With Others

A simple but extremely effective method to counteract this problem I have noticed in clients is that they check with those around them about their options for dealing with pain. Whether it is only medical decisions, medical and life-style, or medical life-style and seeking mental health help, the best decisions seem to come when multiple people one cares about and knows they care about them come to a consensus. Now, at the end of the day our wellbeing is always our choice. We should not let people overrule something that we can honestly say we have fully analyzed. The issue though is we should practice more self-awareness about how able we are to make good decisions and when we are not working with our full capacity due to pain. Someone in pain may need to put more emphasis on the opinions of others, professionals included, about what they may benefit from and always take their minds kneejerk decisions as things to avoid until fully hashed out with others. This avoids major catastrophic poor decision making that can create a far worse situation for those in pain.

If you struggle with chronic-pain and making good decisions for yourself, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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